Richard Seltzer's home page  Publishing home

Three Seductive Ideas by Jerome Kagan

psychology, Harvard U. Press,  (hardback), 232 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

This book is a powerful warning against the dangers of smug cultural conformity.  Written by noted developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, it draws on a lifetime of observing and testing children, and challenges three specific elements of "received wisdom" from Western culture.

First, Kagan doubts that certain abstract processes, like intelligence, anxiety, or consciousness, are measurable entities that have predictive value (say, for subsequent achievement or economic status).  Such glib oversimplifications, according to Kagan, neglect the wide array of individual variability and the shaping forces of environmental surroundings.   Kagan demonstrates how any one abstract trait may be the result of several quite different influences, and shows how this varies widely across cultures.  He accomplishes this by describing, in detail, various perceptual studies among children.

Second, Kagan attacks the Twentieth Century Western notion that personality traits are locked into infants by the age of two.  This infant determinism has taken root in our culture of excuse but it vastly underrates the resiliency of humans and their famous plastic ability to adapt to both emotional and cognitive roadblocks.  Kagan demonstrates how the changing perceptions of infant development over centuries has played out with differing expectations in different cultures.

The third and last of Kagan's shibboleths is the notion of the primacy of the pleasure principle.  He cites many examples of altruistic behavior impelled by internal tugs of conscience, but incomprehensible to those who would elevate human pleasure above all other sensations.  He also wisely cites examples of post-traumatic stress disorders in wartime to prove his point ; most PTSD sufferers are likely to experience symptoms of depression, not anxiety.  This usually indicates that guilt, as opposed to fear, is the basis for their discomfort.

With a nice admixture of social history and scientific case study, Kagan, in this slender volume, raises more valid questions about the value of psychology for modern-day living than a host of textbooks could do.  No doubt this comes easily to Kagan, one of the true Yodas of developmental psychology.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

Book reviews by Richard Seltzer  privacy statement